Kwan Weng Kin

Japan no nearer to revising Charter

The recent grisly beheading of two Japanese hostages by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants brought home the global terrorist threat once again to the people of Japan.

But if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes that this latest crisis will give a much-needed push in his mission to raise Japan's security profile, including facilitating the revision of its Peace Constitution, he may need to think again.

Not even the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, which killed nearly 3,000 people including 24 Japanese, succeeded in firing up the Japanese into joining the global war on terrorism in any big way.

Japan went only as far as deploying its Self Defence Force (SDF) on more frequent peacekeeping operations and helping to refuel US military planes over the Indian Ocean during the war on terror in Afghanistan.

Playing a greater role would mean Japan having to move out of its exclusive defence posture, something neither the government nor the Japanese people were anxious to change.

Mr Abe, however, has made no secret of his desire to revise Japan's post-war Constitution, a document crafted by American occupiers and which he blames for crimping Japan's defence capability through the war-renouncing Article 9. And beefing up the military would help Japan counter the military threat of an ascendant China and belligerent North Korea.

It is therefore not surprising that he would wish to get some mileage out of the hostage incident to move forward his aim of revising the Constitution.

But public reaction in Japan to the crisis has been surprisingly low-key.

The killing of the first hostage, Mr Haruna Yukawa, did not arouse much beyond polite expressions of condolences for his bereaved family.

The reason could be Mr Yukawa's reported occupation as a self-styled military contractor.

There were even rumours that he had gone into the territory of the ISIS hoping to sell arms to the militants.

The killing of the second hostage, freelance journalist Kenji Goto, elicited more sympathy for Mr Goto than outrage over the act, probably because the Japanese had seen it coming after negotiations for his release apparently failed.

All this time, there were subtle and continual reminders, through both mainstream as well as social media, that the two men were partly responsible for their demise as they had ventured into territory they had been warned to stay clear of.

Meanwhile, Mr Abe has been accused of triggering the crisis with his high-profile speech in Cairo last month in which he pledged US$200 million (S$272 million) in aid for those countries contending with the militants.

The ISIS released its first video of the two Japanese hostages three days after the speech, in which it demanded ransom matching Mr Abe's aid amount.

In Parliament last week, Mr Abe admitted he was responsible for going ahead with the speech but reserved comment on whether he had made a mistake in doing so.

However, he deserves kudos for not giving in to the terrorists.

Ever mindful of its heavy dependence on Middle East energy resources, Japan has pursued a diplomacy in the region that seeks to win sympathy and trust through a pacifist posture.

But Mr Abe is correct to say the responsibility for checking the ISIS threat has now also fallen on Japan, not only out of concern for oil and gas supplies, but also because the militants have declared that Japanese nationals will no longer be immune to terror attacks.

No doubt the Japanese can live with Mr Abe's avowed intention to contribute to the global anti-ISIS battle by expanding humanitarian aid.

But if contributing to the anti-terror war also means giving more teeth to the SDF - such as through a constitutional amendment - the hurdles are significant.

Last July, Mr Abe's Cabinet approved the reinterpretation of Article 9 to give the SDF the right of collective self-defence - in essence the ability to help another country under attack.

But revising Article 9 itself is what Mr Abe really hopes to achieve.

The immediate aftermath of the hostage crisis gave him a golden opportunity to assert his intention to call for a national referendum on revising the Constitution next year, following Upper House elections.

He reportedly did so in talks on Feb 4 with a senior ruling party member who heads a task force on constitutional revision.

Mr Abe may be able to muster the necessary two-thirds majority in each chamber of Parliament to hold a referendum, by trying to win big in next year's polls and through alliances with smaller parties.

But though only a simple majority is needed in the referendum for him to go ahead to change the Constitution, a recent survey by the influential Asahi Shimbun newspaper indicates that only 33 per cent of Japanese voters favour constitutional change.

There is also the question of whether it is prudent for Mr Abe to seek the revision of Article 9 so soon.

After all, he should have few problems pushing through legislative amendments later this year to give the SDF the right of collective self-defence.

As the Asahi daily pointed out, calling for the revision of Article 9 in the country's first referendum on the Constitution, when public opinion appears unsupportive, is too fraught with political risks.

If rejected, it could be years before any debate about revising the Constitution is possible again.

A safer bet, said the Asahi, is for Mr Abe to call for the rewriting of clauses dealing with publicly acceptable issues such as natural disasters or fundamental environmental rights.

A revamp of Article 9 is therefore unlikely in the foreseeable future as the odds are too heavily stacked against him.

If it happens at all, it is likely to take place well beyond Mr Abe's remaining three- or four-year tenure as prime minister.